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The lasting impact of ‘The Last Day’

Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish religious extremist in November 1995.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty
Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish religious extremist in November 1995.

Assassinations shape history.

The victims include Abraham Lincoln, Archduke Ferdinand (whose murder ignited World War I), two Kennedys, Martin Luther King, and Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel who had forged a pact with PLO head Yasser Arafat that offered the Middle East the hope of peace.

Think of how the world would be different if any of them had not been killed.

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Israeli auteur Amos Gitai ponders that question, and others, in “Rabin: The Last Day,” a revealing and somber dramatized documentary about the causes and consequences of the prime minister’s murder. The film screens Monday at 6:30 p.m. at Brandeis University, and Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts.

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It begins with a conventional interview. Shimon Peres, Rabin’s foreign minister who was with Rabin when he was shot on Nov. 4, 1995, discusses how the political tone had grown toxic at the time. Extremists who saw the concessions as betrayal were calling for Rabin’s death at rallies for Likud Party candidate Benjamin Netanyahu, who did nothing to discourage it. But Rabin persevered in making his case until, as Peres understates it, “that gentleman came by, the assassin.”

That “gentleman” was Yigal Amir, a young Jewish religious extremist. Was he working alone? Was there a conspiracy? Or did that toxic atmosphere of sedition and murderous fanaticism set up conditions in which the murder of an elected leader could happen?

Gitai employs mostly reenactments of events for his investigation. He includes actual archival footage sparingly but with maximum effect — film of the assassination itself, shot from a security camera in blurred black-and-white and in slow motion, is all the more powerful because of the roughness. But the panicked drive to the hospital with the mortally wounded Rabin is shot in a verite re-creation, capturing the shock and ill-preparedness of the security team. Compare that to the calm reenactment, shot with a fixed camera and crisply edited, of Amir preparing for his crime — dressing, shaving, and loading his automatic pistol.

Most of the film, however, is a courtroom drama. An official commission was set up by the Israeli government to assess how the assassination happened. But unlike “Z” or “JFK,” in this film, no heroic investigator is on the case tracking down the real culprits. The government has restricted the commission to considering only the immediate circumstances — the crime itself, the suspect’s activities prior to and during the crime, and potential security lapses.

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The real causes, or so Gitai implies, are dismissed. An investigator presents testimony about how a group of radical religious leaders had issued an edict (the Jewish equivalent of a fatwah) condemning Rabin to death because he was handing over Jewish lives and property to gentiles. That is deemed irrelevant. Another member of the commission points out how the atmosphere of violence and radical polarization over Israeli settlements in occupied territories had to be considered. But that’s not on their agenda, either.

The film ends with a committee member leaving his office, passing by campaign posters for Netanyahu.

But Gitai is not just being partisan. He’s pointing out how the politics of hate, violence, bullying, and hypocrisy, once resorted to, will never go away. Because they work.

Amos Gitai will answer questions after a screening of the documentary, part of the National Center for Jewish Film’s annual film festival, on May 14 at 1:30 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts. More information at www.jewishfilm.org.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.